Works with Soul: Nahal Suzanne Jamir

Works with Soul: Nahal Suzanne Jamir

May 23, 2012

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with writer Nahal Suzanne Jamir, recipient of Ruminate’s 2012 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize for her story "Stories My Mother Told Me," which appears in the Spring Issue 23: The Stories We Tell. Her piece was selected for first place by finalist judge and acclaimed author, Walter Wangerin, Jr.

RM: Congratulations on winning Ruminate's 2012 Short Story Prize! In your winning piece "Stories My Mother Told Me," there are stories within stories, stories as action, as object, as memory. What began your fascination with stories?

NSJ: My fascination with storytelling began, of course, as a young child. In my family, my mother was the one to tell me stories. On the other hand, my father handed me books to read. So, there was a split in the type, or mode, of storytelling that I engaged with. Beyond the notions of oral and written storytelling, I was exposed to a variety of stories, ranging from family story to science fiction. Yet, all of the stories that I was exposed to existed on a plane beyond reality, whether these stories were about the martyrdom of family members (and their ascendance to the afterlife) or spaceships and other planets. The surreality or ethereality of stories was what I was first truly drawn to, and even as an adult, I cannot shake that pure sense of curiosity and wonder that such stories awaken in me. There is something in all of us that wants and needs more than this “reality.”

RM: "Ethereality" is such an interesting description because in 'Stories my Mother Told Me,' the tales change with the teller and with memory, but the thing shared, the story, persists over generations. Do you find that you tell stories in a different way now, or that the same story comes back to you altered by other tellers?

NSJ: As a child, the way that I “told” stories was through daydreams and solely to myself. I never verbalized or wrote down stories. That mode of daydreaming appealed to me because it entailed absolute freedom from the outside/“real” world, but daydreaming allowed me to mold and change stories with absolute freedom. Yes, you can delete a line that you’ve written, but you wrote it. That line existed in reality and not just in imagination. Additionally, daydreaming is just for you. There’s no pressure of audience and reception. Daydreaming is something that writers have to hold on to as adults. Writers need daydreaming to remember the selfhood, the playfulness of imagination, the freedom, and the power they possess as storytellers.

When I started writing stories, putting pen to paper/fingers to keyboard, in college, I tried to write stories similar to the stories that I had read, which you can imagine, were about quirky American characters dealing with tragedy. The shared stories, those published in anthologies and those handed out in class, had very little to do with the ethnic half of my heritage—and often very little to do with my gender. This isn’t to say that I don’t like these types of stories. In fact, the first year or two that I was writing stories was the most transcendent time of my life, full of discovery for me. There’s the direction that creative writing students frequently receive: “Write what you know.” Well, there are different types of knowing. Eudora Welty says, “Write about what you don’t know about what you know.”

When I began to incorporate ethnic characters into my stories, I still wasn’t necessarily writing what I knew. My mother’s Persian heritage is far from me because I have never been to Iran. (Indeed, we cannot return/go to Iran for political reasons.) I don’t know what her country looks like, smells like. I don’t speak her language. I cannot say if her stories are the most authentic connection to her culture, that story is truer than reality. For me, that is a question and not a claim. For me, knowing is, like daydreaming, a more fluid thing. When I began to incorporate the ethnic situation, specifically the immigrant situation, into my stories, reality faded. Immigrants predominantly tell stories orally, and there is no staunch desire to maintain accuracy but rather to have the stories passed on. The immigrant’s story is like coral or sedimentary rock, meant to be built upon, meant to keep a conversation going. Just like that tradition of storytelling, the form of my stories is now fragmented, an accumulation from beginning to end. In a sense, each fragment is a re-telling. In her re-telling of the myth of Atlas in Weight, Jeanette Winterson writes, “I want to tell the story again.” And this is a gut reaction when resolution isn’t in the cards. By changing the subject of my stories, I had to change my style. Or maybe by changing my style, I had to change my subject. I’m not entirely sure. Yet, the pieces are there, and they belong together.

RM: I love the concept of story as coral reef, fragile and beautiful and full of life. And not just its own life, but the lives that make their home in and around the story, continuing it and growing it over time. Eudora Welty has also said that “The novelist works neither to correct nor to condone, not at all to comfort, but to make what's told alive.” When did you realize your ethnic and immigrant heritage, something so ‘far from me’, was calling out to be brought to life?

NSJ:The realization entailed venturing into a different genre of writing: nonfiction. When I was leaving home for college, I got nostalgic and began a scrapbook of my senior year, but the project expanded, and I ended up sifting through my parents’ old photographs in an attempt to include in this project the best moments of my life, a very cheesy and lofty goal. I came across a black and white picture of my mother standing on a shore staring off into the distance. For me, this picture was intriguing because my mother, of course, looked different, much younger. Yet, she was also so still and calm—not the woman fervently working, cleaning, cooking, commanding us all. And there was also the mystery of what she was looking at. The seed was planted. Still, it would be years before I returned to this picture.

Three years later, I wrote a story about a Persian mother and daughter that was too autobiographical to be called fiction, but I called it fiction. The “story” revolved around these pieces of my life, one of which was this picture. I pulled this picture out while I was writing this story and really began to consider my mother’s life before I was born. This piece didn’t quite work, and I rewrote it several times over the next few years.

After four more years, I wrote my first substantial piece of nonfiction—a distant cousin to that first piece—but still called this nonfiction fiction. I was so reluctant to admit that what I was writing was nonfiction. I think it had something to do with the burden of nonfiction, which is, in part, to bring things and people and events to life with, what I thought then, a rigid accuracy. But despite my relationship with my mother, despite how much I talked to her, I couldn’t get a straight story. So, the fluidity that I was comfortable with in fiction, I was not at all comfortable with in nonfiction. (This was also around the time of the Jonathan Frey debacle.) It wasn’t until I participated in creative nonfiction workshops, until I joined a community with the same project and received their feedback, that I realized there was value in what I was doing—that the essence of what I was writing nonfiction about was making its way to readers.

I realize that I’m overlooking a major factor here, which is my father’s sudden death in 2003. The death of a parent, in a broad sense, destroys what we Americans view as a family structure and creates a void for the child. At first, I wrote nonfiction about Persian culture and my mother to fill a clear void, my lack of understanding. After my father’s death, there was another void, one much more immediate. I was afraid to lose what I had never had and also to lose more than I had already. Fear, like anger, is a powerful motivator. His death awakened in me a need to preserve, and it has been a challenge for me to do more than just deliver fragments in my nonfiction and to deliver more than portraiture. I do strive to “bring to life” what I write about in fiction and nonfiction, and that requires interaction between me and my subject matter as well as interaction between my writing and my readers. Yet, this interaction, especially with nonfiction, is intense and a struggle for an introvert like me to embrace. Yet, it’s also relief. I’m still discovering a lot about nonfiction.

In the end, I realized my culture through a picture, and through that picture, I realized my mother had a life before my birth, realized own fears about writing and family, and then realized the most important lesson that a writer can learn: to bring life to anything requires listeners and readers—someone on the other end.

RM: Well, we are thrilled to be able to give a listening audience to this story by sharing it with our readers. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Suzanne, and for sharing your beautiful work with us in Issue 23. You can read other interviews from our Works with Soul series here.


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